Friction precedes council’s loan agreement approval with Sussex Sports Center Foundation

 

GEORGETOWN – It’s official: Sussex County’s $1.5 million loan support for a projected $4 million multi-faceted public sports complex on the outskirts of Georgetown has the green light.

By 3-2 vote, county council at Tuesday’s meeting approved the construction loan agreement with the Sussex Sports Center Foundation.

Council had previously approved the memorandum of understanding in January.

Sussex County Council members Irwin “I.G.” Burton III, left, and Samuel Wilson Jr. engage in a verbal exchange.

To be located on 56 acres off Sand Hill Road north of the CHEER Community Center, the sports center will feature eight Bermuda grass athletic fields, a certified 3.1-mile running/walking, three pickleball courts, a pavilion, picnic tables, parking for 350 vehicles, storm-water management and permanent restroom facilities.

Approval did not come without debate or friction.

Discussion was punctuated by words from councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton, R-Lewes, and Sussex Sports Center Foundation vice president Bobby Horsey in response to what they labeled misinformation in verbal exchanges with councilman Samuel Wilson Jr., R-Georgetown.

“I think there is a lot of misinformation that is being tied together. It just needs to be cleared up. It needs to stop,” said Mr. Burton, referring to a comment made on the radio Tuesday morning that his wife works for Joe Schell or that she works for the foundation. “That’s just not true. She did have a job with Ocean Atlantic. But she had quit that job before the MOU vote.”

“Did I hear you say your wife retired … or she quit?” said Mr. Wilson.

“The 20th of December,” said Mr. Burton.

“So, while we were trying to help make this decision, your wife was working for them?” said Mr. Wilson.

“No, it was before the vote,” Mr. Burton replied. “She was working for Ocean Atlantic.”

“So, that is associated with Mr. Schell, correct?” said Mr. Wilson, who along with Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, cast the two votes opposing contract agreement approval.

“That is correct. But Sam, I’ve got to ask you; you are going to make decisions on agriculture, you’re going to make decisions on ag lands and you’re a farmer. And Rob is going to make decisions on subdivisions and changes of use and he’s in real estate. It is the ability that we show how to separate ourselves from that and do what is best for the county.”

“I know what I feel is best and I know why I was elected and I know that I have a responsibility to vote on what I hear from the public and what we feel is best,” said Mr. Burton.

Georgetown Mayor Bill West, front, and Bobby Horsey of the Sussex Sports Center Foundation listen to county council’s discussion on the contractual agreement.

Mr. Wilson quizzed Mr. Horsey. “I understand Mr. Horsey that you own 60 percent of the company and Mr. Schell owns 40 percent. Is that correct?” Mr. Wilson asked.

“Mr. Wilson, there is no company. This is a non-profit board. The facility will be run by non-profit. I am the vice president of the non-profit board,” said Mr. Horsey, emphasizing he represents the foundation and the integrity of the Horsey family. “I don’t know what your accusations were, but I can assure you Mr. Wilson our family is only going to be writing out checks to better our county.”

“Who is going to do the construction work here?” Mr. Wilson asked.

“It is going to be publicly bid. We are going to put out bids. But I’m quite sure that nobody is going to beat our bid because we are donating a large amount of money …,” said Mr. Horsey.

“I understand that Mr. Horsey had first bid on it,” said Mr. Horsey. “That’s the word that came to me.”

“Mr. Wilson, we are bidding the project. Mr. Wilson, all of this stuff that you’ve heard, a lot of it is inaccurate,” said Mr. Horsey. “I can tell you nobody gets any more pissed off than Bobby Horsey, listening to social media or the radio talk shows when they are tearing down our family for all of the goodwill we are trying to do for this community.”

The simple question, Mr. Horsey continued, is “are you willing to lend our foundation $1.5 million on the terms provided that the taxpayers are well-collateralized and well-protected to give taxpayers some type of service back that the county is not doing today? You are not providing any type of recreation for the folks in this county. You are collecting a lot of money and not providing those services back. That is the question before you. … it is not to question our integrity. We have done a lot of good for this county and we are going to do a lot of good for this county, both families (Schell and Horsey). So, the false information that is being posted on social media and on these radio talk shows needs to stop.”

Mr. Burton said he finds the misinformation upsetting and insulting, emphasizing his wife “does not work for any of the companies that are associated with Ocean Atlantic, Schell or the foundation. She has removed herself from the job.”

Under the agreement, the Sussex Sports Center Foundation must raise and spend the first $1.5 million. Once that monetary threshold is reached and spent, county loan funds would be accessed for the next $1.5 million at $100,000 increments. Invoices to be paid will come through the county finance department headed by Sussex County Finance Director Gina Jennings.

The county has a purchase option at the 10-year anniversary of operations. If purchased, for $1, the loan would be forgiven.

Loan terms are 50 years at zero percent interest. Annual payments of $37,500 will begin at year 11. As required by county council there will be a lien on the property and an annual financial audit.

The town of Georgetown is committing a contribution of $440,000 over 10 years, which includes cash, services provided, utilities and grant availability.

As presented last fall, the foundation’s game-plan is to start construction in early 2018, with field seeding over the summer. The tentative opening is spring 2019.

Foundation revenue would come from some tournaments as well as requests by clubs for specific field/court reservations for practice/games.

Several workers – two to possibly four – would be employed by the foundation, Mr. Horsey said.

Council’s final vote followed a bid to defer by Mr. Arlett, who felt more time was needed for council – and the public – to review documents that council members had received the Saturday prior to the Feb. 20 council meeting.

Mr. Arlett recommended a “little cool down period” to allow for review, proper vetting and transparency.

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson joins the discussion. At right is County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr.

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said contracts pulled from the last three county budgets show that council approved $62 million in contract work that includes building pump stations, mobile command units, paramedic stations and libraries.

“Those contracts are in your packet on Friday. You vote on them on Tuesday,” said Mr. Lawson. “But if you feel the need to review this contract, which like these contracts is written by our attorneys, vetted by our finance director, vetted by their attorney and in form ready to be considered today … I just offer that comparison.”

“I would only offer this is something we’ve never done before,” said Mr. Arlett. “This is something that is very new. I think the community is still digesting something that is very new, that’s all.”

George Cole, R-Ocean View, Michael Vincent, R-Seaford, and Mr. Burton backed the proposal.

“At this point in the game I think this is a great private/public partnership. I think we have scrutiny from the city of Georgetown. You guys have looked at it and reviewed it. We have heard about all of the scrutiny that Sussex County Council has done from our finance director to Todd (Lawson) and other people … attorneys,” said Mr. Cole, adding he sees this project benefitting people of all ages while adding “to quality of life here in Sussex County.”

“I think the MOU was fully vetted and voted on,” said Mr. Burton. “It’s the responsibility of the legal staff to convert the MOU into a contract. I am convinced that MOU we voted in favor to pass is reflected in the contract that is in front of us today.”

“Certainly, it is a big step for this county,” said Mr. Vincent. “But it is nowhere near the big step it would be if we got in the parks and rec business. It would be a very large amount of money.”

“It’s a loan. It’s not a grant. It gives us a place to try to see if this will work. Hopefully, it will. I think the foundation is going to do a good job. It could be something that starts a way to work with other towns,” said Mr. Vincent. “I felt when he started this the town of Georgetown needed to be very involved. I think they have stepped up and are doing that. I appreciate what they are doing.”

Mr. Arlett and Mr. Wilson opposed.

“The public has not seen these documents,” said Mr. Arlett, noting he supports the proposal but wanted more time for review. “I’m not sure why we have to rush.”

“All of a sudden, we’re in a big hurry to get this passed, aren’t we? Why are we in such a rush to spend a million and a half dollars of taxpayers’ money?” said Mr. Wilson. “We’re dealing with blind eyes.”

Intersection upgrade

In addition to land donated by Joe Schell of the Schell business family, the foundation is also obtaining properties along the Rt. 9 intersection with Sand Hill Road and Airport Road and will donate them for much-needed Department of Transportation improvements to that growing traffic bottleneck.

DelDOT has applied to the federal government for a $7.5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for upgrade of that intersection. DelDOT Sec. Jennifer Cohan told council in a presentation last November there is optimism that Delaware will be a leading candidate for TIGER grant funding to be announced in April 2018.

County Attorney Everett Moore Jr. said one of the terms of the loan commitment is that prior to or at settlement the Sussex Sports Center Foundation shall be required to provide a copy of written and signed commitment “to contribute to the improvements necessary at the Airport Road/Sand Hill Road intersection, which is acceptable to the county.”

“We have to have that commitment to proceed, or we don’t proceed,” said Mr. Moore. “We put that in there because the council requested that be in here.”

Town of Georgetown’s support

Mr. Lawson informed council the town of Georgetown last week approved its MOU by a 5-0 vote. It provides 10 years of support from the town of Georgetown to tune of $440,000 over those 10 years.

Georgetown’s support includes cash contribution and services provided by the town, such as solid waste removal, lawn maintenance, snow removal, utilities including water and sewer, and impact rebates plus grant eligibility from Georgetown’s trust for recreation, education and parks.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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